The Most Powerful Pregnant Woman on the Planet

Mother, feminist and blogger Andie Fox unpicks the controversy surrounding the appointment of pregnant 37-year-old Marissa Mayer as CEO of ailing internet giant Yahoo – all focused on how she’ll handle her pregnancy, and if it’s possible to juggle motherhood and running a Fortune 500 company. Is it relevant to the lives of everyday women? Andie respectfully argues that it very much is.

When Marissa Mayer, previously of Google and now Yahoo’s new CEO, announced the pregnancy of her first child she was quick to assure the stock market that, ‘I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.’

Andie Fox

Andie Fox

Though nothing more than my own identity was at stake, Mayer’s words to the stock market reminded me of my own when I was announcing my maternity plans to colleagues. The first time you are pregnant at work you are slightly desperate to prove a few things. Your continuing work ethic, your continuing professionalism – and maybe your, ah, continuing relevance …

Mayer, who is due in October, is under pressure to prove something else, too, and that is that she will be so undisturbed by motherhood that she will be able to steer a capsizing internet company upright, at the same time as juggling a newborn.

Writers like Lisa Belkin of Huffington Post and KJ Dell’Antonia of the New York Times were supportive of Mayer, who they described as being the most powerful pregnant woman on the planet, but they were also bemused at the notion that Mayer will move smoothly, in the first weeks, from birthing a baby to making Yahoo’s products ‘more innovative and delightful’. A bunch of mothers on the internet chimed in saying that they wondered if Mayer was being naive. This led to criticism, including from Joan Walsh in Salon, that these mothers were being patronising and limiting to women.

Is this really the policing of Mayer and her choices by the mother squad? Framing these reactions as just another round of the ‘mummy wars’, I suspect, misses some important subtext.

New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer: ‘I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.’

New Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer: ‘I like to stay in the rhythm of things. My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.’

Mayer is taking maternity leave (or not taking it) in one of only four countries remaining without a universal paid parental leave scheme. Australia has not long left that dismal list. When Mayer talks about maternity leave as something brief and something that she can work throughout, and her quote receives international attention, you can forgive mothers in the US for being a little jumpy.

Mothering versus a more ‘cerebral’ job

Her statement, as well as communicating a sense of work pressure, also suggests a couple of things about mothering. The first is that mothering is not all that captivating; it will not compete with the rewards of a CEO job. The second is that mothering is, if not easy, then at least not particularly skilled work, because it is something that can be combined (even in the first weeks) with another, more demanding, job. In fact, mothering may be ideally complemented by – how shall we say it? – a more cerebral job.

Stay-at-home mothers naturally feel defensive about this kind of rhetoric. What does it say about you when you are devoting years to an occupation that is considered tedious and mind-numbing? The need to liberate women from motherhood as a biological inevitability and as an excuse to exclude us from full economic participation has meant the desire, intellectual stimulation and fulfilment that is possible in mothering is often diminished.

Consequently, many of us are unprepared for the reality of motherhood when we become parents. We are astonished at the way it causes our hearts, in those first months, to liquefy and slip through our grip, such is the overwhelming tenderness and vulnerability of the role. And something else takes us aback – we are initially quite incompetent at this role we previously considered so routine and humble. When you have a baby in your thirties, you are old enough to have become accomplished at certain things, you are used to succeeding, and yet here you are, floundering with breastfeeding, unable to understand why the baby is crying, and forgetting where you left the car keys.

A plan that may end up breaking your heart

We do not realise how difficult we will find it to compartmentalise motherhood. I cannot count the number of times I heard women say to me that they were going to write a book or finish a PhD or catch up on the house renovations during their maternity leave while the baby slept, and then found they couldn’t. Somewhere there are babies who nap contentedly in their cots while their mothers do all this stuff, but they were not my babies, and I never really met any of them among my friends.

We want space for mothers who do not want a caring role to be their central identity – fair enough – but in the process, we also readily dismiss the hard-won wisdom of mothers trying to describe that transition of motherhood to us.

When mothers are apprehensive about Mayer’s ability to combine work with the initials tasks of recovery and bonding, it is possible that this message is not condescending but rather compassionate. Be careful committing yourself to a plan that may end up breaking your heart. Still, Mayer may not find motherhood a life-changing event; returning early to work may be a genuine pleasure for her. She would not be alone in that experience and she will have significant resources to assist her with it: nannies, cleaners, chefs and personal assistants. Her life will be like that of many fathers.

What is her husband like?

But the question I most want a journalist to ask her is: What is your husband like? Because her ability to juggle her job and family in the way she wants to will depend critically upon him. Will he get up (again and again and again, through the night) to the baby? Will he suppress his cough and his urge to go to the toilet for hours on end so as not to wake the sleeping baby in his arms? Will he make those decisions that need to be made when the baby is running a fever? Will he take on the lion’s share emotionally the way a mother does to allow her partner to continue his career? Men’s lives can be turned upside down by their babies, but the real shock for me – and many of my female friends who were primary carers for our babies – was how little it changed our partner’s lives.

In reality, Mayer will be able to return to work with maximum flexibility – she will have the kind of job autonomy that can come only with being in the most senior levels of management. The collective sigh from mothers when she made her statement about maternity leave was probably less about how she might be minimising the work of stay-at-home mothers and more about how she was minimising the work involved for mothers employed outside the home.

Life choices at the top of the ladder

People at the top of the ladder often fail to acknowledge how significant the advantage of job flexibility is for achieving their work/life balance and how it helps them to make the most of their family time. It is not uncommon for women at the top to boast that they love their jobs and do not see the need others have for time away from work. Even more disturbingly, they may try to argue that work/life balance is a luxury item and that if they have forgone it at their level, surely others must too.

Such women are in difficult positions, weighed down with expectations and scrutiny that their male counterparts never experience. In so many ways they are role models for women, but they can do serious damage to women on the lower rungs of the job ladder in their efforts to keep firm footing at the top.

As CEO, what choice did Mayer have in how she made her pregnancy announcement? Vastly less than a male CEO with a wife would have in announcing his forthcoming baby. Mayer had to establish that she will remain relevant in spite of motherhood.

‘Women desperately want Mayer to succeed’

Women desperately want Mayer to succeed; there are a pitiful number of female CEOs in charge of Fortune 500 companies and we would love to see Google’s first female engineer rescue Yahoo. But we must understand this: when women leaders distance themselves from mothering in order to maintain their relevance in the workplace, they help reinforce the negative way mothers are seen. You probably cannot blame them for it – it’s a rotten deal they face – but likewise, you cannot be all that surprised when other mothers react to it.

In the real world, mothers are facing all the same problems a female CEO is tackling, only with less resources to buy their way out of the squeeze. For these mothers, it is not another spiteful round of the ‘mummy wars’ that they are initiating. It is a desperate plea for their lives not to be squeezed any harder.

Andie Fox blogs regularly about motherhood and feminism at Blue Milk.

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